John Gittings

Long Live the People
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 [Published in China Review, No. 34, February 2006]

The image of Mao Zedong addressing the crowds in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, is a familiar one. Wearing a tunic with baggy pockets, and flanked by his fellow-leaders, Mao read from a written text before a set of large old-fashioned microphones to proclaim the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

There is already a sense of distance between the leaders on the platform (none of whom are smiling) and the "masses" in the square below. Yet it was preceded by a less formal moment which the photographer Xu Xiaobing -- who with his wife Hou Bo took the pictures of the occasion --has recalled.

"Two broadcast announcers had told the crowd "Chairman Mao has come"... and the crowd shouted 'Long Live Mao Zedong' [Mao Zedong wansui].... Chairman Mao himself was very moved. He ran to the front of the gate and he waved to the crowd, he simply said 'Long Live the People [Renmin wansui]'. You could say it was just a matter of two very simple slogans, but they were great in meaning." [1]

They were indeed great, but also very different, in meaning. The first slogan, "Long Live Mao Zedong" (or "Chairman Mao") would be heard over the next quarter of a century many thousand times more in Tiananmen Square. If one counts up the number of throats from which it issued, then it was heard many, many millions of times. It was, and still is, a tribute to one man who, whatever his virtues or vices, had been elevated to imperial status. (In dynastic China the emperor was addressed in person as "Wan Sui").

"Long Live the People" was, to the contrary, a celebration not of one man but of a multitude, and an affirmation that history is made not by one great leader but by everyman and everywoman. It was a simple slogan indeed but usually difficult to utter. More complex exhortations such as "Long Live the Great Unity of the Chinese People" or "Long Live the Chinese People's Struggle against Imperialism" were often heard, yet to celebrate "the People" for themselves was not only rare but verged on the subversive.

"Long Live the People" would be heard most famously in May 1989 when the students called it out on their way to Tiananmen Square. It was shouted at pro-democracy rallies in Taiwan under the Guomindang dictatorship, and has echoed more recently on pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong. .

Mao Zedong himself would use the slogan in Tiannamen Square at least once more -- when reviewing the Red Guards in the early months of the Cultural Revolution. Some Chinese defenders of the Chairman today cite this later use of the phrase as proof that Mao far from being remote and tyrannical was still in tune with the masses.. We can only speculate on Mao's inner thoughts, but the context of 1966 was entirely different from that of 1949.

In 1949 Mao had just completed a revolution which depended for its success above all upon active popular support. He had lived since 1927 until March of that year deep among ordinary Chinese in remote rural areas. Without the people, as Mao often said, there would have been no revolution, no Red Army, and no Communist Party. His response to popular acclaim on October 1, we may conclude, was at least partly genuine.

This is borne out by a remark by him at the end of the celebrations. "The people wished me Long Life," Mao is said to have commented with feeling, "and I wished the people Long Life. That was the only way I could do justice to them." [2]

Yet it would soon become politically suspect to speak of the people without mentioning the Communist Party, or Chairman Mao, in the same breath. Without their wise leadership, would not the people go astray? During the 1957 Hundred Flowers movement (when criticism was briefly encouraged before being suppressed) officials who had listened too closely to popular complaints were accused of "tailing behind the masses". Lin Xiling, one of the most outspoken critics at the time, dared to argue that 'socialism belongs to the people, not only to Party members". She was jailed for 25 years [3].

During the Cultural Revolution, at least in its opening and most radical phase, the relationship of People to Party became rather more complex. Many Red Guard activists believed that they were acting, on Mao's authority, to abolish the Party's power and privileges. Some of Mao's pronouncements seemed to point in that direction, as when he argued that there would always be "people who feel oppressed" by the "big-shots" and that such people would inevitably "want revolution".

Yet Mao had long become remote from ordinary life and dismissive of public opinion unless it coincided with his own. If Mao was briefly tempted by the idea of a genuine second revolution this soon became subservient to his power struggle in which the Red Guards served only as foot soldiers. The decisive turning point came in January 1967 when Mao vetoed proposals to set up a "Shanghai People's Commune" which would have supplanted the Party's authority.

The slogan renmin wansui can be found on some Cultural Revolution souvenirs. A desktop mirror produced in Beijing has the dual greeting "Long Live Chairman Mao" and "Long Live the People" inscribed on the glass. However among the many propaganda posters issued during this period (such as those preserved in the University of Westminster's collection) not one to my knowledge carried the phrase.

The underlying sentiment of "Long Live the People" was found not in the official pronouncements of the Cultural Revolution but in the manifestos of dissenting former Red Guards who became alienated by the perversion of its ideals. The achievement of true socialist democracy, argued the Li Yizhe group in 1974, would "depend on the struggle waged by the broad masses of people themselves" [4]

These undercurrents of popular dissent coalesced in a spectacular manner on April 4, 1976 when thousands demonstrated in Tiananmen Square to mourn the late Premier Zhou Enlai and condemn the "Gang of Four" (now on the offensive against Zhou's lieutenant, Deng Xiaoping). Hundreds of poems and declarations, read out in the square or chalked on its paving stones, affirmed support for the "People's Premier". In the words of one such poem:

Evil rats and foxes can no more run wild;

The People's Strength will not be confined.

The time to smite them may not yet have come,

But when it is ripe, tigers and wolves will be dashed down. [5]

The demonstration was suppressed the next day and denounced as the "April 5 counter-revolutionary incident". In the two years that followed, Mao Zedong died, the Gang of Four were arrested, and Deng Xiaoping regained power. Deng's success was clinched by a Party decision to "reverse the verdicts" on (i.e. to rehabilitate) the April 5 Movement. The new Party Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, bent on much more radical reform to right the wrongs of the Cultural Revolution, commissioned a People's Daily editorial to explain this decision. It appeared across three pages on December 21, 1978 under the front-page headline "Long Live the People".

Never before or since has the slogan been used in this way by the Party newspaper, and this lengthy article remains one of the most important documents in the Party's modern history. Technically a "commentary" rather than an editorial but carrying equal weight, it stated that the April 5 incident had been a spontaneous protest by brave and public-spirited citizens in defence of socialism and against the Gang of Four.

"This great revolutionary mass movement", it said categorically, was in the tradition of the great popular demonstrations of the past such as the May 4 (1919) Movement which marked the real start of China's nationalist struggle. The April 5 demonstration displayed once more "the truth and strength of 'Long Live the People'" (here the phrase is used in the sense of "people's power"). [6]

This accolade to spontaneous political initiative was unprecedented: the People's Daily even praised the "revolutionary masses" for having taken action in April 1976 ahead of the Party (which only moved against the Gang of Four half a year later). Some Party leaders, the editorial added pointedly, 'still don't understand what socialist democracy means, and they panic when the people's democratic spirit reaches a high tide."

These were prescient words: eight years later Hu Yaobang would be evicted from office having alienated the Party elders by his sponsorship of political reform. Hu's death in 1989 then sparked a new wave of protest by the "revolutionary masses" and the Party elders "panicked" -- by sending the tanks in to Tiananmen Square.

"Long Live the People" in May-June 1989 became an affirmation of popular protest against a new oppression. When the students of Beijing University marched from their campus on May 4 -- the 70th anniversary of the 1919 protest -- they were greeted by crowds on their route to Tiananmen Square with approving shouts of "Long Live the Students". To which the students replied with one voice "Long Live the People". The same slogan appeared on banners alongside "Long Live Democracy" -- another deeply subversive idea: neither have been heard since then in Beijing.

The concept of spontaneous mass action is as distasteful in 2005 to the Beijing authorities as -- except for that brief moment in 1978 -- it has always been. Indeed the mounting fear of "social unrest" makes any idea of popular initiative even less palatable: the Party according to current doctrine should always maintain its "advanced nature" and "walk in front of the times" [7]

Slogans of any kind are out of fashion now in China. "Long Live Mao Zedong" is rarely found except on the websites of those nostalgic for the Mao era. "Long Live the People" has been adopted bizarrely as the name of a People's Liberation Army Choral Troupe which sings old revolutionary songs. But it is as necessary today as in the past to affirm the spirit of Renmin wansui.



1. BBC interview,

2. "Mao Zedong zai 1949" ("Mao Zedong in 1949"), Jinggangshan College (Ji'an) website, 9 January 2003

3. Gregor Benton & Alan Hunter, Wild Lily, Prairie Fire (Princeton: 1995), pp. 94-98

4. ibid, p. 144

5. Tong Huaizhou ed., Tiananmen shichao [Copies of Tiananmen poems], (Shanghai: 1979)

6. Hu Jiwei, "Hu Yaobang yu Xidan minzhuqiang" ("Hu Yaobang and the Xidan Democracy Wall"), Zhengming (Hong Kong), April 2004.

7. People's Daily, editorial on Party anniversary, 1 July 2005.